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Budget woes stall highway conversion

Paul Snyder

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation knows how to improve a 29-mile stretch of U.S. 18/151, but the agency does not know how much the project will cost, how to pay for it or when the work will happen.

“It is a harder project in the sense that the exact details of it still aren’t known,” said Larry Barta, WisDOT project manager. “We’re saying right now it’s probably 20 years between now and the time we finish it, but that’s just a guess. There’s nothing budgeted at this time.”

WisDOT is studying converting the stretch of U.S. 18/151 between Verona and Dodgeville from a highway to a limited-access freeway, which will mean replacing numerous county road intersections with interchanges, bridges and frontage roads.

But Barta said WisDOT might not have money available to start the project for at least seven years. And when money is available, the U.S. 18/151 conversion will be one of many projects in the running, he said.

It’s frustrating for communities along U.S. 18/151 such as Ridgeway, where Village President Jon Steen said accidents at county road intersections happen too often.

“If it’s a foggy day, you’re dealing with an unbelievably dangerous situation,” Steen said of the U.S. 18/151 intersection with County Road HHH. “There have been several accidents over the years, and we can look at alternate routes, but as long as those interchanges are there, we’re still susceptible.”

Barta said crash counts along U.S. 18/151 were not immediately available Monday, but will figure into a study by St. Paul, Minn.-based Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. on the highway conversion. The study, Barta said, should be complete next year.

Barta said three U.S. 18/151 intersections, including the one with County Road HHH in Ridgeway, are priorities for interchange alternatives.

But that’s small comfort for residents, Steen said, if it means they have to deal with the problem for seven more years.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “But if there’s no money to go around, what can you do?”

State Rep. Steve Hilgenberg, D-Dodgeville, lives along U.S. 18/151 and said he is willing to help the district lobby for a start date earlier than 2016. He declined to give details of any such efforts.

Despite calls in recent years to generate new sources of money for state transportation projects, Hilgenberg said, proposing new fees is difficult as the state battles to maintain a balanced budget.

He said he is unlikely to introduce an amendment in an upcoming state budget to expedite spending on the U.S. 18/151 project because state road projects should be handled by WisDOT.

But if other lawmakers fight for road projects in their districts, Hilgenberg said, he might have to go to the mat for the U.S. 18/151 conversion.

“We’re in a position now where it seems like we’re waiting for a bad accident to speed up the process,” he said. “You have to get out front and push on it before that happens.

“All I can say right now is that I share everyone’s frustration that this still might be seven years out.”

Barta said WisDOT can complete its engineering work and environmental study for the corridor, but work is going to be determined by the amount of money the state makes available.

“Trying to get it all done at once creates a more consistent environment for drivers and communities,” he said. “But we just don’t have the budget.”

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